Clockwork Souls – Chapter 15

“Failing to plan is planning to fail? I assure you that’s not true. I have planned to fail on many occasions and each has required near faultless stratagems implemented with exceptional precision. The times when my plans came to ruin I was faced with the most dreadful of successes one can imagine – specifically the sort of which breed more work and responsibility. You would think those would illustrate, with perfect clarity, the value of failure and yet people continue striving to succeed under the most inadvisable of conditions.”

-Zindir Harshek Doxle

I don’t know what it says about me that I was more concerned with the five minute deadline on registering than I was the death match that awaited in the hallway, but I had to guess it wasn’t good.

The sigh from the hallway seemed to agree with that assessment.

Or maybe they were just exasperated with Doxle. 

“Your Advisor is an idiot,” a tall man in an Imperial officer’s armor said as he entered the room. He was human – the lack of glowing eyes was a pretty solid give away there. Along with him, green moss, bitter flowers, and the hint of something peppery flooded the room. He either couldn’t lie like Doxle could or he didn’t see any need to bother.

I caught the hint of carmelized sugar and wood fire in there too and couldn’t place it until I noticed the girl who trailed in after the tall guy.

She had her eyes cast down and away from the rest of us and was positioned in as much of the officer’s shadow as possible which kept her mostly hidden from me.

“Lies. I am the most brilliant Advisor in the entire Empire,” Doxle said, throwing his arms wide to offer a hug.

The officer didn’t take advantage of the gesture at first, pulling up short to throw a taunting look at Doxle.

“Shall I tell Quewellin about that?” the officer asked. His smile didn’t seem threatening but there was a dare in his eyes I was sure Doxle didn’t miss.

“Ah. No. Let’s say I am the third most brilliant Advisor in the entire Empire. The twins can fight it out for who can claim second.”

The officer laughed at that and accepted Doxle’s hug.

It seemed like a strange precursor to a death match, but then the idea of Doxle lying, or at least exaggerating wasn’t exactly a difficult one to grasp. I had spent more than five minutes with him after all.

“Lady Kati, may I introduce an old friend, the Most Honorable Intercessor Holman Astrologia,” Doxle said, breaking the hug with the man he’d told me I was about to kill. “Holman, I present to you the Lady Katrinna Riverbond, applicant for entrance to the Elite Cadet Corp program at the Imperial Academy.”

I couldn’t recall that I’d given Doxle the name Katrinna Riverbond, and that was a detail I tended to remember since it was not my name to give.

“Lady Kati,” Holman said offering me more of a bow that I thought he probably should have. If we were going to fight, it would have been a great opportunity to strike, and if we weren’t ‘Intercessor’ sounded like something that probably outranked me.

“It seems you have brought someone along too?” Doxle said, tossing a glance in the direction of the girl who was still hiding in Holman’s shadow.

Or was ‘stalking’ a better word?

Her body language had read as a prey animal, timid, desperate not to attract notice, but the more I watched her, the more I noticed just how well she was using Holman as cover. She wasn’t looking at us, but she was listening keenly. 

I moved slightly to the left, and she shifted with effortless grace away. Her movements weren’t quick. In fact it was hard to notice that she’d move at all. Just what you wanted to do to escape the notice of someone like me. If she didn’t smell like two of my favorite things, I might have missed her entirely.

That probably should have moved her up in my general threat assessment, but there was still Holman to consider. Anyone Doxle had known for a long time was probably a significant threat and even if I wasn’t going to be fighting him, I still felt like it was good idea to know where I stood in relation to his capabilities.

Of course, he had other ideas.

“Imperial Advisor Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, may I introduce Mellina Astrologia, applicant for entrance to the Elite Cadet Corp program at the Imperial Academy.”

Oh. So she was a rival.

A sneaky rival. 

That was just great.

Grumbling internally didn’t buy me anything, and it wasn’t like I’d been under the impression that Idrina was going to be the only other applicant. I think part of me had hoped the rest would be the talentless hacks Grammy Duella claimed made up the bulk of the Imperial forces.

“I must ask my good friend, are you sure you wish me to administer the application exam?” Doxle asked. “You know I fail everyone who comes to me.”

“Not everyone,” Holman said, to which Doxle replied with a sigh.

“She’s like Gamdrin?” Doxle asked, entering the phase of their conversation where I had no idea except from context clues what they were talking about.

Holman chuckled at.

“Her mother would not take the comparison kindly,” Holman said. “A more accurate claim would be to say that my niece is like herself. Test her as you wish, only promise that you will do so fairly.”

“I can promise nothing of the sort. Life is horrifically unfair and, being alive, so must I be,” Doxle said. “I can however promise to be neither unfair ‘for’ nor ‘against’ her application.”

Mellina look up at that, gazing at him with the same narrowed eyes I would have.

It probably wasn’t good that I felt a spark of camaraderie with her there.

I waited to see if she would say anything.

And she didn’t.

Dammit. I could not afford to like this girl.

“We should get started then,” Holman said. “Do you still have that dueling circle setup?”

“I’ve expanded upon it,” Doxle said and began leading us back towards the arena I’d fought in the night before. “There are three to choose from.”

That exchange did nothing good for my blood pressure since it almost sounded like we would be fighting after all.

“What are we doing?” I asked, as we passed through a series of rooms I was certain I’d never seen before. 

If Doxle had been lying about the fight to the death, then he might have been lying about the five minute deadline for registration, but I wasn’t willing to chance that since I was reasonably certain that if I tried to simply break into the Academy the guards there would kill me on sight rather than locking me up.

“Registering you both,” Doxle said, opening the door to the dueling arena.

“The general registration takes place on the Academy grounds that are accessible to the public,” Holman said. He paused to take in the three pillars and the overall space of the room. He couldn’t tell that the pillars were in different positions than they’d been the night before, but I didn’t miss it. “Registration exams which are viewable by all expose the candidates to a great deal of mischief however and so private registrations are the preferred option.”

Unspoken but easily appended were the words ‘for the wealthy and powerful’, which apparently Doxle was able to provide for me too.I hadn’t really wondered why the Great Houses tended to produce more elite casters than any other families. When you have a enough advantages on your side it becomes difficult to fail at some point.

“What’s the test?” I asked.

“The particulars are up to each administrators discretion,” Doxle said. “Hence why I was confident Holman would want to duel you.”

“Yes, but not to the death, you cotton brained lout,” Holman said.

“My dearest, star crossed soul mate,” Doxle said. “You can’t give away crucial information like that. Not if you want to see real effort put into a match.”

“Complaints about how I perform?” Holman asked.

“Never!” Doxle said.

“Good. I should hate to think that was why you left me alone in Leafbridge,” Holman said.

“I am as you noted, ever an idiot,” Doxle replied, gesturing for Mellina to follow him over to the least dangerous of the dueling circles.

Which left me with Holman.

Who wanted to fight me.

Why was that such a thing in Middlerun?

“I would dearly love to ask how you had the beautiful misfortune of falling into his orbit, but we do need to get the registrations submitted shortly,” Holman said.

I nodded and glanced up to the most dangerous of the pillars.

“Is that the one you’d like to use?” he asked.

“Depends,” I said. “What do you want to see.”

If he wanted to watch my offense, then a high platform with no option to retreat would make things easier for me. If he wanted to watch my defense, then being the ground with room to move would be best.

“I’m going to tear a few rifts open. Tiny ones. I want to see if you can stop me and what you do about them,” he said.

The words were spoken so reasonably despite the fact that they were completely unhinged.

Holman read something from my expression, which was talented of him since I had no idea what was on my face.

“The rifts will be no longer than the last join on my pinkie finger,” he said. “Doxle’s shown you how to deal with tiny ones like that hasn’t he?”

“We met yesterday,” I said.

That was news to Holman and not news he’s been expecting it seemed.

Good. No reason I had to be the only dealing with a world that didn’t make sense.

“Okay. Well. That’s interesting,” he said and shook his head. “In that case, let’s just have you try to kill me.”

If everyone I meet seems to have lost their mind, does that mean the world has gone mad or is it just me?

“Ok,” I said, because, really, how else do you reply to something like that. “Can I have a weapon?”

I didn’t technically need one, but there wasn’t any reason to let him know that.

“Certainly! I wouldn’t expect you to try to strangle me to death.”

That wasn’t what I’d had in mind, but again, no reason to correct him.

There were racks of weapons mounted on the walls. Many different shiny swords and intricately etched spears along with axes and daggers and even a selection of regulation Imperial rifles. 

The rifles were probably what most neophytes would have gone for since they offered such a large force amplification for the magic used to power them, but in a space the size of the dueling arena it would be impossible to get a shot off before Holman fed the thing to me piece by piece. 

Instead I picked up one of the clubs.

It was at the bottom of a rack. It was ugly. And heavy. Thicker at the end than at the handle with small, knobby spikes sticking out of it. I was pretty sure it didn’t have any magic on it, apart from maybe a resiliency charm to keep it intact, which suited me just fine.

“And what are you going to do with that?” Holman asked, amused by my choice.

“Hurt you,” I said.

“You are supposed to be trying to kill me,” he said.

“You’re bigger than I am and a better caster,” I said. “Can’t kill you in one blow. So I hurt you. Pain is distracting. The distraction lets me hurt you more. If I break something that’s hard to fix, you’ll try to defend. That’s when I kill you.”

“When I’m trying to defend?” Holman asked.

“If you’re not trying to hurt me back, then I can take the risk. Break something that can’t be fixed. Then break everything.”

“And you would do all that just for a chance to get into the Academy?” Holman asked.

“Yes.” I said without lying at all.

“Then I believe you pass. You may take the Cadet Trials Lady Kati.”

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